Caution: Genius at work
Don Nelson always has been the NBA coaching equivalent of "MacGyver," innovating and improvising his way to success with a spool of thread, a straight pin, what's left in a tube of Chapstick and the magnifying glass he got as a prize in his last box of Crackerjack.
"MacGyver" wouldn't have been nearly as much fun if he'd always had handy a shoulder bag full of C-4 explosives and a Glock G17 9mm pistol. Same thing with Nellie, if he'd always had the proper and best horses. Especially in the middle.
An overdue choice for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame after 44 years and more than 3,500 games as an NBA player or head coach, Nelson has carried around a "genius" label for much of his career working the sidelines, sometimes with a "mad" adjective out front.
It was Nellie, remember, who pioneered the concept of the "point forward," first utilizing Paul Pressey's long wingspan, court savvy and passing ability to direct the offense in Milwaukee. To exploit the NBA's early illegal-defense rules, he often would have big men such as Paul Mokeski and Randy Breuer, way out on one wing, literally link arms to keep each other -- and any help defenders -- out of isolation plays.
He remains a devotee of "small ball," to the point that his three shortest players in any given game might, for long stretches, be instructed to man frontcourt positions. He's the guy who encouraged 7-foot-6 Manute Bol to launch three-pointers for Golden State, the same guy who posted up stocky point guard Tim Hardaway and probably wished he could have tried it with Spud Webb or Muggsy Bogues.
"One of his biggest strengths," Golden State general manager Chris Mullin said, "besides his incredible feel for the game and his in-game strategies and all of that, is doing what you said: 'Whatever I have, I'm going to make it work.'"
Nelson always has been fascinated with "bigs," but rarely the traditional or All-Star variety. Instead, he has gone for the likes of Bol, Chris Anstey, Shawn Bradley, Wang Zhizhi or Dirk Nowitzki, arguably the league's ultimate perimeter 7-footer. Give him a low-post, back-to-the-basket, old-fashioned pivot man, though, and you'd almost expect Nellie to get bored.
The trend continues in Golden State, where the Warriors rely nearly as much in the middle on 6-foot-9 Al Harrington as they do on starting center Andris Biedrins, and where Nelson seems already to be down on 7-footer Patrick O'Bryant, the No. 9 pick overall in 2006.
"I've only had one good center, and that was Bob Lanier," Nelson said after Golden State's shootaround earlier this week in Minneapolis. "He was on one leg at the time. I had [Patrick] Ewing, but Ewing was about all done, too. History would put Ewing in there, although I didn't consider him a great player when I had him."
Lanier, at the end of his own Hall of Fame career, played four-plus years for Nelson in Milwaukee on barking knees. He was a warhorse and a leader, but he never averaged more than 14.3 points or 6.3 rebounds per game over a full season. Ewing still was putting up solid numbers (22.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg) in his partial 1995-96 season with Nelson in New York before the coach got fired, but he was less traditional than some people recall. "Patrick had become probably their best jump-shooter by then," Mullin said.
Beyond those two, the roll call of Nelson centers over the past three decades (with a few exceptions) sounds more like an audition list for a Big & Tall catalog than for NBA acclaim: Swen Nater, John Gianelli, Harvey Catchings, Kent Benson, Alton Lister, Breuer, Mokeski, Jack Sikma (one season), Bol, Jerome Whitehead, Ralph Sampson (one broken-down season), Uwe Blab, Victor Alexander, Chris Gatling, Bradley, Wang and Erick Dampier (one season).
Now factor in Nelson's front-office influence, or actual authority, at each of his coaching stops, and you could make a compelling case that he really hasn't craved a classic, formidable big man. That's in spite of the 11 NBA championship rings that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon have won for their bosses during Nelson's coaching tenure.
That raises the question: Is there some weird appeal for Nelson in not having a traditionally dominant center? Might that hurt his reputation as an innovator, an improviser, as surely as handing Richard Dean Anderson's character a gift certificate for Home Depot?
"He is more inclined to have a bastard roster," said Minnesota coach Randy Wittman, who has played or coached against Nelson for 25 years. "Maybe one big somewhere. But a guy like Adonal Foyle never played [much] for him. Those kinds of players, he would rather not have."
Some around the league suspect that Nelson, who has an ego at least as sizeable as any of his peers, would miss his reputation as a crafty innovator if he were able to (forced to?) play with an orthodox roster. A team with all the proper pieces would not lend itself to tinkering, much less wholesale gimmickry. Also -- and Dallas owner Mark Cuban has wondered aloud about this, in regards to his former coach and general manager -- a strong squad built around a reliable, All-Star-caliber center would face lofty expectations and thus, pressure to win.
At that point, being craftier than the guy on the other bench isn't good enough.
But Nelson demurs at that thinking. "Oh yeah, I loved coaching Lanier. You can do incredible things with a good center. It makes everybody's game so easy," he said.
"It's not that difficult to throw the ball inside, if you have somebody who can do something with it. It's when you don't, that's the problem."
Nelson said he coaches around the center spot mostly out of necessity. But he doesn't envy Phil Jackson, Pat Riley or Rudy Tomjanovich, coaches who have prospered with elite big men while he has yet to coach in the Finals.
"A lot of times you're responsible for your own players," he said. "And sometimes it's just luck that you don't have the right draft or the right number to get a player.
"I look at Utah, and Utah's been blessed through, what, 30 years or whatever to have a great power forward and a great point guard. And here they've got a great power forward and a great point guard again and for another 10 years. I don't know, how do you get a [Carlos] Boozer? They've just found a way to do it.''
And Nelson, maybe, has just found a way to avoid it. Even if he might have used the guy differently anyway. Olajuwon out at the arc, anyone?
"I think it's too bad that we've never seen Nellie have a dominant '5' player, because we might have seen things out of that position that we've never seen before," said Jim Petersen, the Timberwolves' TV color analyst who played three seasons for Nelson. "We might have seen the first 'point center.' He might have played someone like Kevin Garnett out there. He is every bit as creative as you think he is."
Said Mullin: "I don't know that he would [just throw the ball into the center]. Probably, that's exactly what he wouldn't do. Maybe he would get to that, but it would entail a lot more to get there. So the person who thinks he would do that would be faked out."
Once a mad genius, always a mad genius.